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Marvin Lewis makes pet project out of Vontaze Burfict

For Vontaze Burfict, this weekend's rookie minicamp with the Cincinnati Bengals is a chance to prove his critics wrong. The linebacker out of Arizona State watched his stock plummet following a poor showing at the combine. In the end, 32 teams decided he wasn't worth a draft pick.

For all the reports of Burfict's off-the-field problems -- and whispers of his poor attitude -- coach Marvin Lewis saw another side to the player. Burfict impressed Lewis after his pro day by calling and writing the coach, imploring the Bengals to take a chance on him.

The team has done just that, signing Burfict to a free-agent contract for a chance to compete. 

Lewis was in Arizona last week for his daughter's wedding and managed a side trip to meet with Burfict (classic NFL coach behavior). They huddled over the team's playbook and talked about the challenges ahead.

"I struck a chord with him, and maybe that's what he needs," Lewis told The Cincinnati Enquirer. "He's got a lot of stories. I don't have to believe any of it. It doesn't matter one way or another to me now. What he does now from this point forward is going to determine whether or not he can be a NFL player. I think he has some ability. When you watch the tape, there are a lot of things he didn't do very well. But he does some things I can't coach that he can do."

We loved Cincinnati's draft and the signing of Burfict is a no-risk proposition tacked onto their haul. Six months ago, Burfict was viewed as a first- or second-round pick. He lost the perception game leading up to the draft. His game has holes, but the Bengals invested next to nothing to bring him in.

"... There's no down side. What's the down side?" Lewis said. "The positives are: Get in shape. You weren't in shape your last season at Arizona State. Get rid of the selfishness in your play. Learn how to bend your knees. Let us coach you and let's see if you are what people thought you could have been. Because I have no idea who you are. And so you're starting from scratch here."

I sat at a table with Burfict at the combine. He was soft-spoken and patient with reporters as he answered one question after another about his past troubles. Back at the time, he was seen as a logical fit for the Baltimore Ravens, a young middle linebacker to learn behind Ray Lewis. That chance is gone, but there's a door open in Cincinnati, and now it's up to Burfict to show he belongs.

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